Update on the San Francisco Public Library’s Jack Kerouac “On the Road” Manuscript Exhibit

On the Road Manuscript, #2

Well as readers here know, I recently defied the “no photograhy” rule put in place by the San Francisco Public Library with regards to their Jack Kerouac “On the Road” manuscript that is currently on display there. Thanks also to Cory over at Boing Boing for helping to amplify the message and to help promote the concept of fair use photography.

It has been my position that the “no photography” rule is bad policy for the library and that we should be permitted to take photos of the manuscript to share with people beyond the areas of the world that can get to the display in person. I don’t think that Jack would have objected to that. Even when issues of copyright are brought up (and I’m still murky about how copyright could apply to the manuscript beyond the text itself) I think that the manuscript can be presented within the confines of the doctrine of fair use which is how I feel that I’ve presented it.

To further push the envelope here I have just sold a copy of one of the photographs that I took to San Francisco Magazine where they will be publishing it in their March issue. I’m no attorney and hope I’m ok in doing this. Feel free if you are an attorney and have an opinion to chime in.

Of course, in part what also makes me want to push this issue is the idea that I do not feel that the multi-generational inheiritance of works of culture and art should be locked away by copyright law. I feel that as a society we are culturally poorer when great works like Jack’s are passed on to extended family members who try to lock the art away for the sake of personal profit. Although I am fine with an artist passing on rights to their work to a spouse, partner, children or close friend, I think once you get beyond immediate family or initial beneficiaries that works of art should fall into the public domain.

Equally disturbing to me are reports that I’ve recently receieved from Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia about how Jack’s extended family have treated him as well as Jack’s work since his death. Nicosia is a well known biographer of Kerouac and has written the book “Memory Babe” about Jack’s life.

I asked for Nicosia’s permission to reprint from his emails to me some of this on my blog and he has granted me that. Below are Nicosia’s comments:

“I agree that you are right to challenge the Sampas family’s claim that a photograph of the manuscript would violate the copyright. If the entire text were printed in a book, that would certainly be a copyright infringement. Right now, however, the courts are still out on the question of whether posting text on the internet is a copyright violation. Many online book sellers, such as Amazon, post the text of books they are selling (including text portions of my own books, without my permission)–and at this point, there is apparently nothing to be done about it.

However, the library certainly has a right to ask you not to photograph, since the manuscript is on their property. The library has asked that rare photos not be copied either, and in the case of photos, a copy diminishes the actual value of the photo. It is hard to see how the photo of a manuscript diminishes the manuscript’s value, since, as you say, it probably draws more people in to read Kerouac.

The bigger question, which I raised in my speech, and which you suggest here, is that Irsay, the Sampases, and their cronies, claim they are sharing the manuscript with the people. But if it were truly shared, it would be donated to the permanent collection of some major library, so that it could be fully studied for months or years by qualified scholars, determined to learn how Kerouac arrived at, edited, and molded this manuscript into the masterpiece we know as ON THE ROAD. It is also not widely known that Irsay charges libraries five-figure amounts just to show the manuscript.

Sampas will not even give us a list of whom he has sold the other Kerouac manuscripts to. We don’t know where THE DHARMA BUMS manuscript (a roll) is, and that is certainly the second most important manuscript in Kerouac’s archive. Hypocrisy runs hot and thick here, and you have tapped into a vein.

By the way, Kerouac did not call it a “scroll”–a term that was dreamed up by Sampas’s auctioneer to fetch more money for it.

Good luck with your efforts to free Jack’s manuscripts!”

Nicosia also adds:

“You might also be interested to know that John Sampas has also claimed the right to control photographs taken of Jack Kerouac, and he prevented SF photographer James Oliver Mitchell from showing his splendid photos of Kerouac, taken in North Beach and the SF railyards in 1960, by threatening the gallery that he could file a legal injunction against the show unless he were cut in for part of it. This happened in the late 1990’s, to the best of my memory.”

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